Editorial: Finding the energy to grow
Buck Steam Plant, Duke Energy’s coal-fired facility in Rowan County, reflects the shift taking place in the energy industry. As Duke closes down two of Buck’s coal-burning units in the coming years, the company plans to bring new natural gas fired combustion turbines online. The cost of the expansion and modernization is estimated to be $600 million.
That’s just one sign of Duke’s shift to more diverse fuel sources, a change that Duke Energy Carolinas President Ellen Ruff says will accelerate in years to come. Judging from Ruff’s comments at Catawba College on Wednesday, the transition will not be instant or financially painless. Some of the alternatives people like to rhapsodize about ó solar and wind power, for example ó cannot be counted on 24/7 and might not be as heartily embraced as you would think. Imagine the uproar if Duke dotted the Outer Banks (a nice, windy spot) with industrial-strength windmills, for example. And the expenses associated with taking advantage of other renewables or natural gas risk making electricity unaffordable for users or unprofitable for shareholders ó not a lasting solution.
But the company is diversifying. As it does, Ruff calls for more public debate about the nation’s energy future so companies like Duke will know where consumers’ priorities lie. It’s one thing to love solar power, for example, quite another to think it can completely replace coal or nuclear energy in the near future. Where’s the tipping point between protecting the environment and keeping energy affordable? How can any energy company keep its commitment to shareholders to make a profit while venturing into more costly ways to produce electricity? And how can this all happen fast enough to keep up with the region’s growth?
Most people don’t want to think about these issues and consider the trade-offs required to keep the lights on in their homes and businesses. Consumers tend to react ó to high prices, to what they consider dirty forms of fuel, to interruptions in service. But they don’t want to be responsible for the balancing act it takes to keep electricity reliable, clean and cost-effective.
People who heard Ruff’s talk Wednesday in the Crystal Lounge got a taste of the high emotions these questions can stir. One questioner, first purporting to be a student and then admitting she was not, launched a loaded question about whether Ruff suffered any sleepless nights knowing the potentially fatal consequences of mountain top mining, a method for extracting coal. Ruff said Duke has an obligation by statute to provide power, and coal is one of the ways it does so during this time of transition. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it. But you can be sure questions like this come up again and again, and that environmental concerns help speed the company’s transition to other types of fuel. Consumers need to plug into the debate and consider the full costs of keeping the lights on.